We could easily take sanskara (the 4th aggregate/2nd link of whatever) and translate it as “routines.”
Routines are everything in life. These simple actions of body and mind wear traces through time. What began as a single step turns into a well-worn path that we follow without a second thought. Routines govern everything from our day-to-day actions, to our thoughts and reactions, to the way we perceive ourselves and the world.
Routines teach us language, and they craft our identities. They even teach us that an object that’s far away is far away rather than really small. And as we experience pleasure and pain over and over again in predictable ways, we see that we’re responding differently to things than those around us. So, routines teach us that we’re separate because we experience life separately.
This is straight from established developmental psychology. I’m not just some lunatic screaming into the void.
As 2018 wore on, I noticed that I often felt like I was dying. My physical and mental health were competing with each other, fighting over which one would bottom out first. Years of junk food and a dismal lack of exercise, and years of cyclical thoughts and moods were both finally coming to a head. So I said, “Fuck it,” and decided to change everything.
If you want to make a generic prediction of your future, just picture what you do in a day and then multiply it by five, ten, or 20 years. I had my first cigarette when I was 15. That first smoke (that I didn’t even inhale) turned into 17 years worth of cartons. That first self-defeating, “I’m worthless and awkward,” when I was in grade school turned into a lifelong self-hatred that’s interfered with my relationships.
On the other end of the spectrum, that first time I took my bicycle out in 2007 and roamed the country back roads turned into two years of passionate long-distance cycling. The first time I meditated when I was 16 turned into over a decade of on-again-off-again practice.
Lao-Tzu said, “The journey of thousand miles starts (with a single step) beneath one’s feet.” For better or worse. Each trickle of water has the potential to become a raging river. And each river has the potential to become a trickle of water.
I like using a garden metaphor. We’re all born with thousands of healthy and toxic seeds. Who we were, are, and will be depends on which seeds we water. So the first step to positive growth is to stop watering those toxic seeds that yield poisonous fruits. Then, we start watering the ones that yield healthy fruits.
The water is intention, attention, and contemplation.
When we try to change routines with a heavy-hand, we usually end up failing because we’re not working with the source of those routines. We might decide to cut out carbs and sweets (intention) but still find our minds drawn to them (attention), and we might think about how nice it’d be to bite into a huge slice of cheese cake right now (contemplation).
Intention and renunciation aren’t usually enough to change our lives on their own because all routines start with our minds, with our habitual mental patterns. The solution is to be mindful of where our attention and thoughts go, and then practice bringing them elsewhere.
If you’re trying to kick sweets, be mindful of whenever you have the urge to eat something sweet, when attention is drawn toward a memory of a candy bar or cake. Then, gently turn attention to something else like your breath, body, the thought of a loved one or teaching, or the room around you.
Eventually, this diversion becomes a routine and comes to replace that desire for sweets. Then your new diet doesn’t require any effort to maintain, which drastically increases the potential for it to stick.
This all applies to depression and anxiety as well. First we have to be aware that we’re anxious or depressed. That seems like a given, but depression and anxiety are routines too, so they can get pretty easy to overlook. Then we can scan our minds and take a mental inventory, a snapshot of what we’ve been thinking, feeling, and desiring throughout the day. That tells us what to look for as we move on.
Then we watch for those thoughts, feelings, and desires. When they creep up, we notice them and direct our intention, attention, contemplation elsewhere. This is different than ignoring what’s going on because we’re totally aware of what’s happening, and we’re choosing to move around that inevitable thousand foot drop off of a cliff by changing course.
During meditation, we can watch our routines. We can see how each thought, feeling, or intention tries to snag our attention and drag it down the river. And we say no, I’m not gonna fucking do that; I’m just gonna watch you float down the river instead while I attend to my meditation object.
To change our lives means changing our routines because life is a routine. We have to identify and alter our patterns and take an active part in our own growth.